09 November, 2015

The Netherlands: Delft

Delft is a curious city in South Holland, situated between Den Haag (The Hague) and Rotterdam, though closer to Den Haag and the coast. 

It is famous for the Delft University of Technology and the famous scientist Antony van Leeuwenhoek. It’s also famous as the source (at least as far as names go) for Delft Blue Pottery, as well as the painter Johannes Vermeer, though sadly none of his existing works remain in Delft, despite the presence of the Vermeer Centre.

For attractions it boasts two fabulous churches – die Oude Kerk en die Nieuwe Kerk (the Old and New church, though new is far from accurate now, its construction having finished in 1496).



Citizens of Delft are so proud of their cultural impact on the world that Delft Blue Pottery can be found here as graffiti.

Wandering around by ourselves, we took in the sights. There's a lot to see, especially if you like canals, but that's true for much of the Netherlands. 

There was a coffee shop that had a not-quite hipster feel to it. There was a certain vibe in the place that wasn't unappealing.
They had a selection of novelty and trendy items for sale - possibly so they could appeal to a particular market, though it may have been doown to simple economic necessity. Eithher way, it cheapened the experience of a coffee shop.

What got my attention was the name, though this probably betrays me as once being a Warcraft player.

In the men's room there was a shine to Batdog.

Delft University of Technology

Although Delft University of Technology “only received its current name in 1986, it has been providing technical education for over 170 years”, so the claim goes on their website. It began as a Royal Academy founded by King Willem II in 1842. The university logo incorporates the flame that Prometheus stole from the gods.

The university boasts a wide variety of subjects; everything from architecture to mathematics, computer science to applied science and various forms of engineering including aerospace, civil, electrical and industrial.

 I have been led to believe that this is a student union kind of building which also houses the lunchroom for university students. Its initial design did not include the small concrete pillars near the front of the building. It was designed in such a way that the building would stay up without them. It’s quite a feat of engineering, but there was scepticism and uncertainty and later the pillars were added. In my opinion it’s not the prettiest of buildings, though it does contain some resemblance to a science-fiction spaceship. (The building continues to the right of this picture, meaning this is a side-on view of the front.)

Delft University has an interesting library. It is built into a bank, having grass for a roof, with much of its centre lit by sunlight coming in from a glass tower. Luckily no student card is needed to gain access to the library, so we were able to take a little look around this magnificent building.



Its front doors look out onto the back end of the student union building and once again I can visualise the spaceship, staring at its would-be thrusters.

Delft porcelain is part of the global concept, like Swiss chocolate, Guatemalan coffee or American corruption. It’s also as misleading as Columbus discovering the Americas. Delft porcelain is in fact stoneware. We learned this from a helpful gentleman at De Delftse Pauw (www.delftpottery.com), one of the few Delftware manufacturers left in Delft. 

We also learnt another useful tidbit which was that the name Delft is unimportant in recognising Delftware. As Delft is merely a name, anyone can use it. You can start your own manufacturing in California, Shanghai, Windhoek, Bombay or anywhere else you can imagine and you could still give your stoneware the name Delft. Therefore, if you want to know where your Delftware comes from you are obliged to turn the piece over and look at its base. On there will be the mark of the company as well as the signature of the painter. If it doesn’t have that, then your piece is mass produced and possibly not even hand-painted.
The clay in the Netherlands is a reddish-brown colour which when baked turns red and yellow. The well-known white clay which is the trademark of Delftware is imported from England and Germany. The clay is mixed with water and then placed in moulds which help absorb the water. After half an hour the clay wall is 4mm thick and dry while the interior of the mould is still liquid. At this point the moulds are turned upside down and the contents poured out, leaving a hollow vessel inside. It is then dried for three days before being fired for eight hours at over 1000 degrees Celsius. The cooling process takes about a day. During this time the clay turns into a hard stone.

 A man showing the different manufacturing stages of Delftware.
(Picture from De Delftse Pauw's website)

Blue and white Delftware became extremely popular, but it’s important to know that other colours exist too. It’s also interesting to note that the blue colour comes from the second firing. Initially a black ink is applied to the clay and through the firing process it turns blue. Of all the colours used on the clay, it is the only one that changes in this way.

De Delftse Pauw's showroom.
(Picture from De Delftse Pauw's website)

11 October, 2015

The Netherlands: Amsterdam

A few months back I was lucky enough to visit the Netherlands. My brother and my sister-in-law (Thomas and Danika) live in the Netherlands and I was lucky to be the first in the family with the opportunity to visit. They happened to be moving house on the day we arrived - a slight inconvenience - but we repaid them by helping them set up parts of the new house.

Since then I have finally found some time to update my blog on my experiences there. Instead of following my adventures chronologically, I shall cover one city at a time, incorporating a little history into each post. It seems inevitable that I should begin with the capital.

Sunset over the train station on the edge of Amsterdam.

 It's important to remember that the Netherlands is quite multi-cultural. While sipping sangria awaiting our meal merely a stone's throw from the Rembrandtplein, we were entertained by a group of Brazilians practicing either capoeira or some similar martial arts dancing.

The lights at night in Amsterdam are beautiful and this can best be seen at the waterfront near the train station. I was there in the Summer and I found I had to remind myself how dark the Netherlands could get in the Winter months.

 Here is a typical Summer scene in the Netherlands - hundreds of people relaxing at the park, enjoying a leisurely picnic.

Though a little hard to see, this is a bridge crossing a canal and on the right hand side are chairs and tables. This is one of many bridges that has restaurant seating spanning the bridge.

City History
Amsterdam is the capital city of The Netherlands, even though Den Haag (The Hague) is the seat of the Dutch government. In the 17th Century Amsterdam became one of the most important ports in the world as a result of its innovative developments in trade. The Dutch people began the enterprise of shares in their shipping trades. Investors would invest capital in ships leaving port (which would often be away for well over a year, if not years). Investors who found themselves low in finances could then sell their share of the profits off to other investors or parties wishing to become investors. Usually the closer it was to the time of the ships’ return the higher the price of the shares. Unsurprisingly then the Amsterdam Stock Exchange is the oldest stock exchange in the world.
It was also one of (if not the) first country to legalise cannabis, putting it on par with alcohol as a recreational stimulant.
The Netherlands has historically been a place of learning and freedom of thought. Many non-religious people moved to the Netherlands in the past centuries in order to continue their studies free from religious bigotry and persecution.

The Amstel River terminates in the centre of Amsterdam where it is funnelled into various canals spanning more than 100kms. The three main canals form concentric rings that are the heart of Amsterdam. They are the Herengracht (the Lords’ Canal), the Keizersgracht (the Emperor’s Canal) and the Prinsengracht (the Prince’s Canal).

In the distance can be seen one of the few old-fashioned windmills that is still operational.

One canal boat passing another.

One of the great ways to see these canals is to join a canal tour. There are many that operate throughout the city, usually on a hop-on, hop-off system. They often double-up with other attractions to give you discounts, which help if you’re there to sight-see.

It's helpful to know that canal boats come equiped with lavatories. It's also important to know that the seats in them look more like tall bar stools and that the rooms are less than a metre wide. 

There comes a point when some canal  boat tours leave the canals and enter open water for short periods.

This boat, though unable to sail, is a recreation and (if I recall correctly) a museum in and of itself. The building behind is another museum and if you arrive before it gets to late (so unlike us) you'll be able to hop off here and take a look around.


Our last stint on a canal boat was near the end of the day just before the boats stopped running. As there were only a few of us on the boat (and because we had to wait for another boat to pass us by where a bridge was raised) the captain obliged us by leaning out over the water and collecting a glass-full of the canal water. What was surprising was how clear the water was. She advised us against drinking it, though.
In the Netherlands water is taken very seriously. This should seem natural as water is essential to life and because parts of the Netherlands are below sea-level. The people of the Netherlands ensure their water is taken care of. It's arguably the country with the healthiest tap-water.

The Rijks Museum and the Van Gogh Museum are close to each other, in the vicinity of a large open space that many use as a picnic spot. 
Across this open field one can see the Rijks Museum in the distance. Left, beyond the scope of this picture, lies the Van Gogh Museum.


The open field terminates at a road and, crossing it, one gets to a park/playground area before the Rijks Museum.


My advice to anyone who wishes to visit a museum is this: go early and only go to one place. It’s also a good idea to pre-book tickets to places. We went early and queued for over half an hour to get into the Van Gogh museum. By the time we came out there were people filing around the corner, waiting for hours. 

This was the queue when we exited the Van Gogh Museum. It spilled down onto the pavement and continues down the road. People there had been waiting hours and would continue to do so for many more. This was around midmorning.

The Anne Frank house was even worse. We took one look at the queue and moved on. There are a limited number of pre-book tickets for the Anne Frank house and they usually sell out about three months in advance.

Markets are a great part of life in the Netherlands. Amsterdam, like every other city, has its own markets. Some, like the flower market, are permanent. Others are set up on certain days of the week.

 The permanent Flower Market near the city centre.

Cat Boat
There is a wonderful boat sitting on a canal called De Poezenboot or the Cat Boat. It is a home for stray cats.  They are kept and looked after, though some are up for adoption. They rely upon donations to keep going.

It was only after I snapped this shot that I realised I had dropped my pen. It must have fallen out of my pocket when I was crouched down chatting to another cat.



Amsterdam - indeed the Netherlands as a whole - displays many idiosyncrasies that are utterly charming. Here are a few we saw in Amsterdam, though there are more to come.

The "George Takei" resturant

A group of Scotsmen playing bagpipes are they float downriver.

A musical group commandeering the attention of passers-by in the train station. The piano in the picture of one of many - each placed in large train stations across the country - which are open to the public. The music that comes from them is spontaneous and enjoyed by all. In this instance the group in question interchanged who was playing and accompanied it with song, getting many to stop and join in the singing.